Negative Space

Please excuse the lack of posting and the current strange philosophical musings. I’m still in stage three of the photo decluttering – that is, the stage where I reprocess everything I picked as my “Hall of Fame” collection dating back to 2004 when I got my first 2MP digital camera. In the process though I have streamlined my workflow and discovered a better way of processing, so another point of simplifying my life!

That aside, I have some thoughts about the idea of “negative space” that have cropped up during this frenzy of photo editing. The artists among us will know what I’m talking about, but I will demonstrate with some pictures and then get into the philosophical aspect of it. This concept applies to music as well, as I remember someone saying something along the lines of “it’s what you don’t play” – that is negative space. Of course, John Cage’s piece 4’33” is a demonstration of this concept as well, albeit possibly an absurd one, perhaps absurd by design, I really don’t know or care.

In the following photograph, about two thirds of it is negative space. I will show it with that cropped out as well and I invite you simply to contemplate the difference. I prefer not to get into too much analysis of it and allow it to speak for itself, because I think most people just instinctively feel the difference. If anyone wants to offer an analysis, feel free to do so.

With the negative space (as shot).

And without the negative space (cropped).

 And here is one that has a lot of “stuff”, as a contrast. 

It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with a lack of negative space in an artistic sense as it is somewhat a matter of taste. The first photo “works” either  way, but I prefer it as shot. There exists a sort of counter movement to minimalism called maximalism, which I can certainly appreciate as well as some of those people do have an interesting artistic flair of their own. The ice cream shop pictured (Dutch Dreams in Toronto) actually moved to a larger and far less interesting location. The cramped, dark, and full of clutter location pictured was a popular land mark place that had been there for decades, sometimes with a queue going up the street in the summer.

Nevertheless, I tend more toward the simple for my own life, and what I notice is where I try to leave some breathing room on surfaces, things appear and gather, as if nature really does abhor a vacuum. It does take effort to keep those spaces and to find room to breathe in life. I think the impulse to clutter both physical and mental signals a disorder in the self. There is a difference between a sort of ordered clutter as in maximalism and the general disorder that clutters most people’s lives. The former is done with intent and the items are loved, whereas the latter “happens” without a mind towards things that are loved and wanted.

Modern people seem to lack negative space in their lives. The cult of so-called positivity may have ramifications beyond “being positive”, whatever that might mean. We view “negative” as taking away, and we view that as bad, like children who have their video games taken away as a punishment. Taking things away is viewed as a kind of punishment and thus “negative” connotes “bad” in the minds of people. Silence is a form of negative space that we can’t seem to abide as well. If it’s not the TV on all day, it’s the radio, internet, podcasts, YouTube videos, chat windows, blogs… There is certainly no shortage of noise with which to fill our lives, and this applies equally to physical clutter. 

While some may disagree, I think we need to redeem the negative and find that we do indeed gain something from discarding something. We gain space and sanity at least, and these are no small things. 

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The Big Photo Dump

Since I don’t have much “big stuff” left to do now, I have begun the arduous task of going through my digital photos. Those go back to 2004 and there are a LOT of them, many of which are boring, poor quality, and very repetitive. I thought deleting pictures was going to be difficult, but it turns out the difficult part is just the sheer volume of it. It is actually fairly simple to pick out what I want to keep (as opposed to what I want to discard) and then simply disregard and discard the rest. There will still be way more than is really practical for any sort of slide show that doesn’t bore even me to tears, but I estimate that I’m probably discarding at least two thirds.

I also discovered just how disorganized my backup disk was. It’s so bad that I’ll think I’m done with a year’s photos only to find more lurking elsewhere. I have managed to tidy that up, but that is time consuming by itself. At first, I was doing one folder of “the best” pictures and a sort of “B” folder of ones that weren’t necessarily great, but that I wanted to keep for one reason or another. Predictably, that got to be unwieldy, and things were going in the wrong folder and would need to be sorted again, making for a complicated sorting process that made me feel like just deleting the lot and being done with it. Not so good.

So instead of that, I decided to reorganize my method and do folders of two-year increments that would include ALL the pictures I wanted to keep, regardless of reasons or quality. My mistake was trying to organize as I sorted. Again I learn from experience, it doesn’t work, but old habits and all that. Discard first, organize later. It simplifies the task and makes it manageable. This way, I will be able to go through a lot less stuff to pick out the best of the best, the ones I’d like in some sort of album or just an online gallery on their own without the added clutter of the not very good ones but ones I like nonetheless. Another mistake for me is thinking one folder would do. There is no way I can deal with a single folder of pictures that has 6000 images. I also can’t deal with them all mixed up by date and quality. My old pictures were taken on a 3MP camera and even apart from the megapixel quality, my photography has improved over the years of taking so many pictures.

Which leads me to the element of letting go what has served its purpose. All the bad pictures of kids that are not really necessary since I have better ones were part of capturing the good ones as well as learning to do it without having to take quite so many in the first place. I do not need pictures from every single day of my kids’ lives, and neither to they. It took me a full day just to get around 20GB of files off some CDs so I could deal with them more easily. Knowing that CDs are not the most reliable archive, I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time. One of them had a load of stuff I couldn’t access, but I did have a “best of” backup so probably didn’t miss out on much, but it does show that if you do want to keep it, better keep it up to date. Instead of a big case of CDs, it can all fit on an SD memory card or USB stick and multiple backups are simple and cheap. So I thanked the CDs for holding onto my files and let them go.

The point of all this is that if I can do this, I am confident that anyone who wants to can accomplish this task. My precious photos are going into the bin, people! My photographs!! But by doing so, the truly precious ones will be able to be seen and enjoyed, instead of being buried under a mountain of boring stuff that no one wants to deal with. I think the question of what purpose it serves or has served is one to keep in mind. It helps with letting go of things where there is really no purpose in holding onto them. Unless they truly bring you some joy just to have, in which case, they still have a purpose! But most of my pictures are nothing special and I don’t really care about them, as it turns out. I thought this was going to be more emotionally difficult but it really isn’t. There is no way I can do all of it in one go though. There is simply way too much and I get burnt out looking at them so that I need to take a break and come back refreshed. Today I am probably just going to leave it and perhaps I will get back to it tomorrow. Given that from what I’ve read it takes people an average of 6 months to complete the process, I think I have plenty of time to go through my photos. There is no rush, just a will to get it done and see it through to the end, and tidy up once and for all.

Oh, and of course, I will have to reprocess them all, so for those who follow on Instagram, be prepared for old photo spam (but probably not much for a while as I’m only on 2008!)